Intelligencer staffers Zak Cheney-Rice, Benjamin Hart, and Ed Kilgore discuss the South Bend mayor’s shaky performance in the aftermath of a local tragedy.
Ben: Last week, a white police officer, Ryan O’Neill, shot and killed a black man, Eric Logan, in South Bend, Indiana, where Pete Buttigieg, wunderkind presidential candidate, is still the mayor. The shooting highlighted long-simmering tensions between black residents and the police force (the officer who fired the shot has been accused of racist remarks in the past) as well as between black residents and Buttigieg. The mayor went home to address the crisis, skipping an important campaign event, but his presence doesn’t appear to have pacified many. Some people shouted at Buttigieg to reform the police department during one appearance; the mayor then hosted an often chaotic town hall in which he appeared calm but dispassionate about what was unfolding in front of him.
This is obviously a complicated circumstance, but from what you’ve seen, how badly has Buttigieg bungled it? Or is this a no-win situation that is simply a by-product of running an American city in 2019?
Ed: As I wrote earlier, when Buttigieg first left the campaign trail to deal with this (so far not very successfully), the incident has exposed two of his biggest vulnerabilities as a presidential candidate: his not very impressive day job and his not always impressive handling of it, and his notable lack of support from African-Americans.
Zak: I don’t know that he has bungled this to a special degree. For me, the situation really just underscores how unextraordinary he and his city are relative to this kind of violence. It is, of course, a pretty telling incident if his 2020 pitch is that he is a uniquely competent mayor presiding over a uniquely well-run city. But it’s not necessarily a “no-win” situation, in that he could fairly easily do what elected officials have been asked to do repeatedly by black residents: change how the police use force and how they treat black people. He just probably won’t do it.
Ed: Well, he has some history. Complaints about the lack of diversity in the South Bend police force have been heard regularly throughout his tenure. And most famously, he demoted the city’s first African-American police chief for wiretaps (possibly illegal) on cops who were allegedly engaged in racist talk.
Zak: Right, I’m just saying none of that is unique to South Bend.
Ed: No, it’s not unique to South Bend, but he is semi-uniquely responsible for police conduct as a sitting mayor running for president. Buttigieg is probably lucky that Wayne Messam didn’t make the debate field; he’s the African-American mayor of a city that’s larger than South Bend (Miramar, Florida). De Blasio is in the debates but not on the same night as Pete.
Ben: It should be noted that the officer who shot the man had a body camera but did not activate it, contrary to police-department rules. Trying to ensure that there are repercussions for that bit of negligence seems like it would be a start.
Ed: In any event, it’s pretty clear that Pete’s African-American critics back home have a serious, long-standing beef with him, and they are using their leverage to do some damage to his candidacy — as would citizens in any small city with a low opinion of their mayor who is suddenly all over the national media as some sort of philosopher prince.
Zak: It seems there is some confusion about my initial point, which I’ll clarify: Buttigieg is definitely responsible for what police do in his city. At the very least, his White House ambitions make the timing of Logan’s killing inconvenient for him personally. (Though I doubt his 2020 chances are of paramount concern to Logan’s family and black South Bend residents at the moment.) I’m just saying he’s dealing with it as most mayors would and have over the years: poorly and with little commitment to the changes that have been demanded of them. In that, he seems unextraordinary to me. Which is an especially stark revelation given that his 2020 pitch hinges on his being special.
Ed: Good point. Anyone looking at his mayoral record at the beginning of this race probably noticed that there were questions about his handling of the police force. This did not come out of the blue.
Zak: The point that black residents are using whatever leverage they have here to damage his candidacy is interesting to me. From what I’ve read, they seem to be responding as people typically do when one of their neighbors is killed by police. I’ve seen quotes from people in disbelief that this man is a White House contender at all. But other than that, the local backlash doesn’t seem especially focused on his 2020 campaign, as opposed to his responsibilities as their mayor. Unless I missed something.
Ed: I’m not suggesting their reactions are politically motivated. It’s just that the beef with him is clearly not limited to this shooting, and as you suggest, I suspect they are annoyed that their mayor is being treated in such an elevated manner nationally. I would be, in their place.
Zak: Yeah, it is clearly reflective of long-standing problems they have with him.
Ben: Buttigieg was already polling poorly among black voters, at zero percent in some polls, before this went down. Is there a realistic path to getting out of the basement now?
Zak: I doubt it, unless he does something extraordinarily different from what mayors typically do in situations like this.
Ben: So you think most black voters are paying attention to what he does specifically about this incident?
Zak: I don’t know about that; I just know that in a field this crowded, big stories like this hold extra weight for all but the top-tier candidates. So I imagine he’ll be largely defined by this.
Ed: Well, absent anything he’s saying or doing to give him the kind of credibility that, say, Biden has built up over the years with this community, then it’s hard to overlook it.
Aside from avoiding any more bad scenes like the town hall meeting in South Bend and making on-the-ground decisions as they arise, his immediate problem is the likelihood that he’ll be asked about this in the debate on Thursday. I guess in theory it offers him the opportunity to say something dramatic to reverse the perceptions of his handling of the shooting. But it would also significantly raise awareness of it and, as Zak says, define him.